Gone are the days of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, when dog catchers rounded up nameless pesky strays and took them to dog pounds to sit in cages. Animal shelters are being modernized and further developed. They are occupied by gentle, caring, and dedicated animal lovers. They have welfare conferences, they have specializations in animal shelter medicine, they have enrichment programs – and they use science to make informed decisions.
However, animal shelters are inherently stressful places where even well-adjusted pets can switch off physically and behaviorally. Environmental stress is often at the root of the many challenges pets face in animal shelters, especially in large urban open-entry shelters. Pets in shelters, on the other hand, get sick easily when exposed to novel germs, a high viral load in the environment, a weakened immune system, or a combination of all three.
To counter this, animal shelters need to meet basic veterinary and behavioral care needs and have enrichment guidelines in place to minimize stress. But what could further reduce the rate of infectious diseases that might be linked to immunosuppression?
To evaluate this question, we worked with Animal Care Centers in NYC (ACC), New York’s only openly licensed shelter system. In every animal shelter, ACC has extensive veterinary and behavioral teams that take care of the physical and mental needs of the animals, as well as an extensive enrichment program and one of the highest placement rates in the country for a large urban institution.
Get the barge in your inbox!
Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date.
Despite these measures, the rates of infectious respiratory disease in ACC remain high, especially in dogs with Infectious Respiratory Disease (CIRDC) or kennel cough. This seems to be at least partially due to a weakened immune system caused by high levels of stress.
In a study published on December 1, 2016 in the JAVMA issue “Effects of trazodone on behavioral characteristics of stress in hospitalized dogs”, pharmacological intervention is a possible next step in improving the quality of life of kennel dogs. While additional research is needed to determine the effectiveness and practicality of such interventions, a promising drug has been suggested: trazodone hydrochloride (trazodone).
Trazodone, an atypical antidepressant that is classified as a serotonin receptor antagonist and reuptake inhibitor, is often prescribed for generalized anxiety disorders and specific phobias (such as those triggered by loud noises such as thunderstorms) in dogs. Moving to a shelter can act as a similar stressor. Everything a dog once loved and controlled is shockingly removed, and novelty becomes the norm.
As a result, ACC began using low-dose trazodone on a trial basis in 2018 to ease the transition into the animal shelter environment. All dogs received one to two doses of trazodone (5 mg / kg) within 48 hours of ingestion.
How did we test the theory?
To evaluate whether trazodone could be helpful in reducing CIRDC cases, we compared two time periods: the population who received the drug and a historical control that did not. In November and December 2018, all dogs were given an appropriate dose of trazodone upon entering the shelter. In the control group – dogs entering the shelter in November and December 2016 and 2017 – no dogs received trazodone. We have identified 1,766 data sets for use and inclusion in the analysis.
What did we find
Statistical tests comparing the number of sick dogs in the No Trazodone and Trazodone groups showed a significant change in disease rates. Fewer dogs in the Trazodone group (29.1%) were sick than in the No-Trazodone group (41.2%). In addition, dogs in the trazodone group had a statistically significantly shorter length of stay (average 9.23 days) in the shelter than dogs in the no-trazodone group (average 10.47 days). Finally, dogs in the trazodone group had a higher adoption rate (42.1%) than in the no-trazodone group (30.4%).
What do these correlation results mean?
They suggest that there might be a new practical use for trazodone. It appears that a low dose of this drug when moving to the shelter can relieve a dog’s stress, indirectly affect immunosuppression, and potentially improve resistance to highly contagious diseases such as CIRDC. Because early intervention in a shelter is critical to a pet’s success, trazodone can be a useful option (one of many!) For reducing stress in the shelter and improving quality of life.
However, caution should be exercised in interpreting these results. First and foremost, a relatively low dose is given over a short but critical period of time to prevent the drug from being classified as a sedative. The goal is not to mask stress or behaviors, but to allow for a smoother transition.
In addition, administration of trazodone should be used in conjunction with other non-pharmacological protocols. It is of the utmost importance that other enrichment and stress reduction methods are used in the animal shelter (e.g. convention-specific play groups, individual socialization sessions, music, quiet light outage over night, odor enrichment, food puzzles).
In other words, this method is one of many in an arsenal of techniques that – together and when all other options are exhausted – can be used to prepare a dog for success in a turbulent environment.